Attack on Titan and CGI in Anime

When I was just a fledgling otaku, the words line art, compositing, and sakuga meant little to me. An appreciation for the heights that animation can reach takes time to acquire, and you might know a masterclass by your fifth anime, your fiftieth, or even beyond that. But there was something that nagged at me as I watched Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood for the first time whenever a ceiling fan was shown. It was a stark contrast to the rest of the scene, it moved much smoother than everything else on screen, it was a completely different texture than the characters and background. Quite simply, it stuck out.

I quickly ignored this discrepancy because FMA is a fine looking show even now, and this was just one part that didn’t look quite right. I only realized what was askew when the homunculus Envy revealed his true form, a massive green monster…that didn’t blend in with its surroundings. The ceiling fans and Envy were created through the use of computer generated imagery, or CGI, an important tool to animators, and one of the most controversial subjects in anime.

CG has been a hot-button topic for years, largely due to many studios struggling to use the new medium effectively. Public perception of it has improved as studios like Ufotable and Orange have made gorgeous series like Demon Slayer and Beastars, while leaning heavily on CG or creating the entire series with it. Many studios still fumble with their attempts, like the much maligned 2016 Berserk reboot, but both public opinion and quality have been on an upward trend.

However, with the final season of Attack on Titan now airing, the debate over CG in anime has been brought to the forefront of the community once again. The change from Studio Wit to MAPPA has brought a heap of controversy, with complaints over the new art style, and especially towards the studio’s use of all-CGI Titans.

Image result for berserk 2016
The title of this piece is “Go read the manga”

The most pressing question between critics and defenders of MAPPA is whether or not their use of CG is done well, or if anime should even use CG at all. Obviously it is a valuable tool to animators to pull off scenes and stunts that they never could have dreamed of only twenty years ago. People just get confused about what makes CGI bad, because we can’t judge anime CG by the same standard as we do practical effects in blockbuster movies. The simple fact is that it’s a completely different game trying to make CG blend perfectly with 2D animation than it is with real people, and that anime doesn’t have the budget to pull that off.

If every series had a practiced team used to working with CG, several years to work on their project, and enough money to fuel it all, we could expect a higher standard of computer imagery in our anime. As it stands, budgets are pretty standard across the industry, the experience of an animation team varies wildly between studios and freelancers, and scheduling is one of the hardest parts to get right in any anime production. The same level of photorealism we expect from a new Marvel movie’s special effects is just not possible from an anime made in half the time on 1/10th the budget.

So when I say “is this CGI in this anime done well?” I am asking whether or not it sticks out from its immediate surroundings. With a practiced eye, pretty much anyone could pick out CGI in a given scene just by scrutinizing hard enough. This is improving all the time, but the learning curve for compositing CG onto hand-drawn backgrounds next to hand-drawn characters is steep, and both the anime industry and Japan as a whole are slow to change and tradition-centric. Any new method is going to take longer to catch on than it would in the west.

There is talk that CG in anime is lazy or somehow a shortcut, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s correct that computer-generated models are often used as shortcuts, especially when animators need to render an image with a level of fluidity that the same fidelity in hand-drawn animation would be nigh impossible. However, if CGI were so easy to use effectively, then it would have replaced 2D animation like it has mostly done in the west. The thing about computer animation is that it might be easier to do in some scenarios, but to do it well, it requires a comparable amount of investment of a studio’s time, energy, and talent to pull off.

So as much as some purists decry the use of CG in their favorite anime, they hardly notice when an accomplished studio like Ufotable sneaks CG models of characters into background or blurry shots. And when this gives animators more time to work on the key frames that actually define a series’ animation, can we criticize that the background characters take us out of the viewing experience? The same thing happens when we see a hand-drawn character with no face or eyes because animators work on a tight schedule, and sometimes things have to get the short end.

So animation does not suffer from the use of CG, but can often benefit from it. It is simply a matter of a studio having the staff and training to blend CG with traditional animation.

Image result for demon slayer cgi

Studio Wit worked on Attack on Titan for six years and produced an icon in anime with legendary art work. They gave life to the free-flowing movement of the ODM gear, the adrenaline-fueled exhilaration of the Scout regiment navigating the narrow streets behind the walls, and the monument of skill that is Levi vs the Beast Titan. Despite that, there was more than a little trouble with the production committee, and the title moved over to MAPPA when it came time for the final season. MAPPA is a great studio in their own right, but handing the project to a new studio in the final stretch is reckless.

Well, with the benefit of hindsight, was Wit all that when it came to their work on Attack on Titan? There’s no denying that most of their animation on the series was masterful, but cracks were showing in the anime well before they showed in Wall Maria. The first season is littered with off-model characters and sloppy compositing, but the first season’s Blu-Ray release fixed most of those mistakes, and with the final cut being the one that made its way to streaming services. That’s not a fault with Studio Wit, that’s how anime works, and Blu-Ray releases always clean up the worst of the broadcast’s mistakes.

Then there was the use of CGI in the second and third seasons. Season Three specifically is a triumph of direction and fight choreography, but they included a full body shot of the Colossal Titan when the technology clearly was not there. There was criticism for it at the time, but nowhere near the level of backlash that MAPPA has received for their use of CG Titans, and some fans are going so far as to erase the past and claim that Wit never faltered in their handling of Attack on Titan. They did a great job, but the standards of anime and the way the industry is just means that there is never going to be a ‘perfect’ anime.

Image result for colossal titan cgi season 3

When the announcement of the studio change was made, questions of MAPPA’s competence were immediately raised, although that’s more than fair. This is a beloved piece of pop culture, and fans are right to be worried about any change in production so close to what should be a triumphant finale. When the first episode aired, a lot of criticism was leveled at the studio when the entirely CG Beast and Armored Titans were shown off, but honestly? They look fine.

Don’t get me wrong, you can tell that this series was made on a tight schedule, but it looks far better than it has any right to. MAPPA hires some of the most talented artists in the business and an in-house team on CG, and that’s the reason why these Titans look as good as they do. The problem is that the people complaining about the studio and the CGI is that they don’t have realistic standards for how these things should be used in anime, and it’s distorting their judgement.

CG is almost immediately recognizable if you know what you’re looking for. No matter what measures are taken to hide it, if you’ve seen enough anime and scrutinize what you’re watching, you’ll notice CGI nine times out of ten. One of the best CG jobs I’ve ever seen was in The Great Pretender (ironically done by Studio Wit), where almost every vehicle has a heavy filter laid over it that blends it with the show’s aesthetic and drastic color palette. And guess what? As soon as I noticed, it was glaringly obvious in every scene after.

The Titans are these massive creatures with a lot of detail and need to move both incredibly quickly, and with a sense of tremendous weight to their actions. The quality of the compositing on the Titans is actually remarkable, considering the time crunch. It is just a simple fact that CGI is never going to be invisible.

And on forums and Reddit there have been a lot of people posting still frames from the series crying how MAPPA has murdered their baby, but that’s just not fair. Anime revolves around a handful of frames receiving the bulk of the detail and manpower, and then the frames in-between those keys being passed to the lowest paid artists on payroll with the shortest schedule. Still shots are not meant to be viewed in isolation, they are meant to be seen in a slideshow of hundreds of them in sequence, so any one frame on its own is obviously going to look low quality.

There has been a drop in quality between the animation of Wit and MAPPA, but I would say it’s no wider than a hair. The minute difference between the two has not shaded my opinion of the final season at all; the Marley arc is one of the best in the series, and the presentation has been consistently impressive. There is a moderate gap between when this is written and when it is published, so if MAPPA drops the ball after episode seven…crap.

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If you would like to compare this CGI to Studio Wit’s, note how it doesn’t look like garbage.

The big takeaway from this is probably ‘don’t harass animators’. I sincerely doubt that any of my readers engage in that behavior, but it’s the kind of toxicity that anime as a community cannot afford to foster. How long do we expect to treat the creators of our favorite things like garbage and have them still hang around to continue making them? If I had to worry about dozens and hundreds of death threats and hate comments every time an essay goes live, I can’t say I’d still upload for long. Criticism is fair game, but the countless nameless accounts on Twitter targeting animators who worked hard to bring you a new episode of Attack on Titan is just absurd.

I’m certain that the animator who makes $2 USD per frame is just as upset as the Reddit mob that one scene doesn’t match every line of the manga. But if you’re that upset, it’s a lot easier to turn that energy towards looking forward to the Blu-Ray. At the end of the day, Attack on Titan is about to go down as one of those shows that maintained an insane level of quality from beginning till end. There’s not a lot I can say to dissuade some who is furious that the quality went from a 9.5/10 to a 9, but bullying people working 80 hour weeks to deliver content is not a solution, at least not a productive one.

There are actual solutions to the problems facing animators and studios, but fans have to actually put pressure in the right places and inform the companies in charge that it makes more business sense to behave more ethically. Every anime fan would benefit from animators making more and improving working conditions. Anime would rise drastically in quality if fans were accommodating of when a show gets delayed. Tweeting that MAPPA ruined your favorite anime might be a great way to let out your stress that Attack on Titan didn’t turn out how you wanted, but when we have clear paths to improving this medium that we love, and we don’t take them, do we even deserve anime?

If you liked this essay, you can pass on a like, they help combat the existential dread that clings to every facet of life. You can follow the Otaku Exhibition so you never miss an upload, and you can even follow me on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku for post updates and stray thoughts on anime and games. Cheers!

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